Jessamyn West, also known as ‘teh mod’ of MetaFilter. (Courtesy: Jessamyn West)
When community weblog MetaFilter recently celebrated its 10th birthday, many offered plaudits citing it as an exceptionally civil online community. At least some of the credit must go to AskMetafilter moderator Jessamyn West. I asked her what it takes to keep a huge online community on track.
You’re probably best known online as the librarian behind www.librarian.net and as a moderator with the popular AskMetafilter community. Are there similarities between what’s involved in creating a good library and a good online community?
I’m also a lifeguard! I feel like in all those cases the jobs have some really similar aspects. You’re vested some sort of power through mechanisms that other people don’t understand. You have training that many people don’t know you possess. You also spend a lot of time enforcing basic etiquette rules instead of doing your “job”.
So, most people who work as librarians in libraries go to library school. All librarians know this but fewer non-librarians know this. I had to get CPR training and lifeguard training to be a lifeguard. I had to be a long-time user and someone that Matt Haughey [who owns the site and was the only moderator for years and years] trusts completely to be able to move into a working moderator position at MetaFilter.
And of course in the library in addition to all the other jobs you do — cataloging books, purchasing books, working on the budget, running programming — in a small library you also wind up doing a lot of routine stuff like cleaning and filing and also the sort of “rule enforcement” telling people what is and isn’t allowed. I think in a well-functioning library — and, to be fair, rural libraries have this a lot easier than urban libraries — enforcement of the rules isn’t as big of a deal since it’s clear that the library is a local community-funded resource.
We don’t have fines, for example, so it’s a lot easier to manage late books and that sort of thing without being someone who wants your money. And in an online community you also do a little bit of rule enforcement. Telling people that, ‘hey ironic racist jokes maybe don’t come across the way you’re intending them, maybe don’t do that here’. That sort of thing.
For every public mod action I make, whether it’s removing a comment, talking to people in MetaTalk [the part of the site specifically for talking about sitewide issues and heavily participated in by the mods], I’ve done ten little behind the scenes actions, whether it’s emailing a problem user, fixing someone’s little typo, IMing with someone about a potential post they’re considering, or just talking with my co-workers.
So in both cases there’s a lot going on that the usual user doesn’t see, there’s a lot of training and experience that goes into knowing what to do and, also, having some social skills and finesse dealing with difficult people and situations goes a long way, much longer than any sort of “by the book” rule-following.
How did it come to pass that you won Matt Haughey’s complete trust, and you joined him as a MetaFilter moderator?
It’s not like it was a contest. It’s just that I’d known him through friends of friends for a long time [all the old-school bloggers seem to know each other, if you had a blog in 1998, I probably know you] and when I was on MetaFilter he and I would chat sometimes. As he started the Ask MetaFilter project, he enlisted a few people to give him some ideas. He got Jesse James Garrett to help him with taxonomy and categories and had me help out with some idea of “how to ask a question” and the FAQ and such. As the site was rolled out, I was there with 101 “helpful” suggestions, some of which were implemented and some of which weren’t. I’d also make a note if things were out of line or that sort of thing.
Over time, I think Matt realized that it was nice to have someone who was helpful without too much ego wrapped up in the process. At this point he’d been running the whole site himself for years and it was difficult, time consuming and I think he was looking for a way to still do what he loved — work on websites — and also have a family, ride bikes and the other things he enjoyed. Bringing on another person made sense. You can ask him for his own perspective too, that’s just how it sort of looked to me at the time.
I started out really part-time, helping out in between working at a public library, and gradually shifted to more full-time-ish which is what I do now.
How has your interaction with MetaFilter changed since becoming a moderator?
I’m a little more careful about what I say and I’m online a bunch more. Basically once you’re in a situation where you have power over people, power that you sometimes wield, it’s sort of important that you deserve it at some level. This means acting a bit more decently — I was always mostly decent — and sometimes passing on the chance to make that totally awesome putdown because it’s just not a cool thing to do, to sort of needle people that you have some level of control over. I have a lot of friends on the site, both people who I became friends with via the site but also real life friends who came to the site after we were friends. I use my real name there, so there’s the “don’t say anything you don’t want to come back at you later when you’re trying to settle a dispute between angry people” aspect but also just the “everyone I know can see this” aspect.
So it mostly hasn’t changed much, I’ve always been one of those people who talks about some stuff online and doesn’t talk about other stuff, but I do maybe think about my interactions there more. There’s always a sense in which if something goes south, I can walk away from it because it’s “just a website” but I also can’t just walk away because it’s my job. Honestly there’s maybe been two or three times I can even think that I might have even considered doing something like that. I mostly just like my job.
Party of three: MetaFilter mods (L-R) Josh Millard, site founder Matt Haughey and Jessamyn West. (Courtesy: Jessamyn West)
You mention the training you did to become a librarian and a lifesaver, but there’s no formal training program in online community moderation, that I know of. What do you think a course like that would need to teach?
That’s a great question because each community is really different. I teach a lot of librarians about social software, about how they can use it to do outreach, about how it’s good to at least know how these spaces work, spaces that our patrons use every day. I think one of the bigger deals for community moderation is learning how to have a set of rules and guidelines and how to ensure that they’re applied fairly. So in your dream world, you don’t have to go around censuring people.
In reality the entire reason you have moderators is so that people who need a little help can have it. So even though I think this is a bad personality trait of mine in real life, my “worst case scenario building” skill helps a lot here. A lot of my time on the site is really spent sort of keeping an eye on:
- my email;
- my personal mail [we have messaging on the site];
- my chat window;
- the flag queue;
- the admin mailing list; and
- MetaTalk, the part of the site where people go to discuss site issues.
So one of the biggest skills is not just multi-tasking but the ability to see a problem and respond quickly and appropriately. Sometimes a quick email to someone who seems to be disruptive “hey, everything okay, you seem to be really causing some trouble…” can defuse something which might get worse and require more intervention at a later time. Having a light touch early so you don’t have to play the heavy is a huge part of it. So being able to see what’s up and figure out a way to act quickly is a big part of it [not dissimilar from lifeguarding].
It’s also good to have patience, to have compassion, to be good at spelling and basic HTML and also be able to be firm and have a decent bullshit detector because as much as you’d like to believe that everyone’s being sincere and honest, some people just like to interact with online communities to sort of mess around there, it’s not real to them. Since the bulk of the people on MeFi really are interacting sincerely, it can be tough to ascertain “hmm, is this person messing around or are they just really tone deaf about how to get along here?” and we have to make those decisions, with the input of the community.
At some very basic level being a moderator is a little like… working in a church or something. Like the community has chosen you to help guide their community but really it’s only because of their trust that you have your job at all so you always have to make sure that trust is well-placed and warranted. I’m sorry it sounds a little ridiculous to say this is anything like church, but that same idea of someone working who really only works there because there is a community and they need someone to have a big picture view while they do the day to day things a community does.
Regarding library fines, do you ever wish you could fine people on MetaFilter? What for?
Nope, I think library fines are basically a regressive tax on poorer members of the community and I’m against library fines generally. That said, we do have penalties on MeFi which are pretty much of two kinds
- time off - we can give people the night off, the week off or ban them for good;
- deleting of posts or comments.
And at the end of the day, that’s mostly it. We can email people or call them out in comments but as far as “punishment” there’s just time off. Which actually works most of the time. A lot of times people who are sort of wreaking havoc are just having a bad day or maybe have a sore tooth or whatever it is (we get emails often later saying “sorry about that… I had this extenuating circumstance”) and having a break from the ebb and flow of what’s up really does help. I don’t mean to be flip about it but at the end of the day it’s one website and one that you can walk away from. Of course to many of us it’s a lot more than “just” a website, but if it’s making you crazy, it’s a little easier to compartmentalize than, say, an angry spouse or a broken leg.
You’re monitoring a lot of different “inboxes” every day, and I can only assume moderating a community of thousands of users has to be a taxing role at times. Throw in your own personal website, your professional blog, and having been at this for some time, do you have a patented Jessamyn regime for “getting things done”?
I have one inbox actually. Well maybe a few depending on how you slice it, but mostly one. I find the “getting things done” meme to be a little weird because I think for a lot of us, that’s just the way we’ve always operated. You don’t need a special pen or software program to be organized if you’re like that naturally. I’m aware that a lot of people maybe aren’t, and this sort of GTD productivity fetishizing is useful if you really need a step-by-step instruction guide on how to manage the multiple inputs to your life, but to me it’s always seemed like basically another excuse to go shopping. And there’s no sense saving keystrokes or clicks or whatever if you’re not actually doing something terrific and awesome with the time and/or life you’re getting back. So. I guess this is a complicated way of saying I’m not sure. I’ve always been really routine-based and organized and I sort of view it like this:
- I have a few routines (get up and check email, open browser to tabs I always use, make heavy use of tags in Gmail, Scrabble at night);
- they have optional subroutines (respond to emails, act on emails, file old emails, etc.);
- there are a few clean-up routines that put away the stuff those routines take out or unpack or investigate;
- there’s an “all done now?” routine;
- there’s a “start over” routine;
- there’s a “did you miss anything?” routine;
- there’s an “old business” routine;
I think a lot of people don’t have an “all done” routine or a “start over” routine and I know a lot of people never get to that point where they’re looking at an empty inbox and they think “okay now I can look at some of that back burner stuff…”
I try to get to a point like that pretty much weekly. And yeah, being on MeFi a lot I realized there are lots of different types of people. I realized a lot of people don’t open their mail. I realized a lot of people live in terrible financial quagmires. I realized a lot of people make fighting against their weight or their Mom or the post office into their reason for being and that is good because it gives them purpose but also not so good because I don’t think people like to think “battling the spectre of bad parenting” is a really good thing to be what gets you out of bed in the morning.
So, my get me out of bed thing is to make myself happy and make other people happy, or happier. And the good news is that doing the second thing often leads to the first thing. I mean there are things that suck and I definitely have my own personal albatrosses that keep me, some days, from thriving, but they’re not fun to talk about and, again, they’re not what I consider to be my reason for being so they don’t deserve a lot of attention.
The web is a very different place from 1998, when most everyone with a blog was friends. But I get a sense that to some extent you still treat your online life like not too much has changed. Is that a fair assessment?
I assume more people can see it, is the big thing. So it used to be that if I wrote a blog about my day most of the people who saw it were people I knew or people who were sort of online themselves. Now we’re in an age where I can Twitter about getting a Black and White cookie and I’ve got some Black and White cookie company following me on Twitter within a few hours. That’s different. That’s real different.
I’m more likely to be able to get a beer or a place to sleep in any big city in the US now because my network has expanded. I know more people and there are people who would like to know me, so this sort of thing works. I guess there are a lot of people online who are still trying to figure out why they’re there. For a lot of people, they think they can make a buck, or find someone to love them, or find someone to love, or get a job or whatever. That’s still true, it’s just easier to make it true for more people.
When you say there are more people who’d like to know you these days, are you more suspicious that people want to know you for more selfish reasons, as they now see you as someone wielding a level of influence? Or is this just a positive result of you having a wider network?
Mostly positive. I mean, I don’t know what I could actually do for anyone that would make them want to get to know me in some way. I’m clear to people who email me out of the blue, I have limited time and attention so I try to mete them out somewhat judiciously. That said, for someone who is internet famous, I spend a lot of time alone. Not complaining, I like my alone time, but I have room for other people and stuff to do. Other people don’t busy up my life in some non-optimal way, in a very real sense they are my life and that’s totally fine. I believe there have been a few people who have been super-nice to me on MeFi maybe as a way of, as we say, “workin’ the ref” but it hasn’t bothered me much either way and it’s probably not very effective.
Go ahead and ask: Jessamyn’s personalised plates match her roles as a librarian and moderator. (Courtesy: Jessamyn West)
Your personal website still has instructions for how “strangers” can come and visit you. Do you often get people taking you up on this offer?
Yeah. I think this year I’ve only had one person I didn’t know come to visit, but a few other people coming through from CouchSurfing.com. I have a smaller place now so I’m less set up for guests — which sort of pains me.
I’ve met members of the MetaFilter community, and organic farmers in town for a conference, and I’ve met skiiers and hippies and librarians and nerds. It’s been a pretty good run overall. Sure not everyone is as terrific as maybe you’d want a new stranger staying in your house to be, but generally there’s some sort of threshhold for this sort of thing; if you’re going to ask flat out to stay at someone’s house, you’re probably not a total weirdo. Or if you are, you’re a good kind of weirdo.
Outside MetaFilter, you have two long-running blogs – librarian.net and your personal blog. What drives you to keep creating in these spaces?
The aforementioned free time and I think I still have things to say. It’s been interesting, over the years, watching the spaces morph. I send my personal blog posts over to Facebook and get way more comments there than I get in my own web space. Similarly with librarian.net all the action seems to be going on now at Twitter and FriendFeed. Both of them are places I go sometimes but don’t sort of “hang out”, you know?
So having been at this for 10 years it’s neat to get a long view and see how things have changed to try to get an idea how things will change, or might change.
Is all that action at Facebook, Twitter and FriendFeed more personal than it might once have been on your blog itself? Is it a semi-return to the days of 1998?
If it’s more personal it’s only because there’s me plus other people now, not just me. There’s a sense in which that sort of handles the problem of blogs being somewhat solipsistic. This way the public view is not just what you say but others’ responses. This has been awesome for more transparency in businesses, it’s interesting viewing it in a more personal realm. I feel like I know some of my online friends in a different [not necessarily “deeper”] way because I have a sense of not just what they say about themselves but also how they publicly interact with people online, their friends often, which is something I would not know about them in a “blogs 1998” environment. I’m not any more personal or less personal though I think the constant updating does encourage a sort of “what I ate today” oversharing which some people are terrific at and many people are not.
Taking a long view, as you put it, how do you think these web spaces might change and evolve?
I’m a bad futurist so I’ll pass on this one. There’s nothing like making predictions only to have them come crashing down around you as soon as you make them.
Just ask a few economists about that! MetaFilter is often cited as one of the more civil online communities. Do you ever dip your toes in the water in spaces such as Digg and Reddit?
Nope. I find myself there sometimes because of Google searches and I’ve been really interested in the Ask Reddit thing they’ve been doing lately, seeing an AskMe type of tool but filtered through the Reddit community. I basically have time in my life for one online community and I guess I’m just lucky I mostly like the one I’m in. I’m sure there’s a chicken/egg thing going on there too.
How useful do you think AskMe is as a kind of archive of human knowledge?
It’s a good example of one sort of archive, but even though it can seem really wide ranging, it’s very, very important to remember that we’ve got a very narrow demographic sliver [mostly: US/Western/northern hemisphere and Australia, educated, Caucasian, decent with technology, on average] and so all the discussion tends towards those sorts of topics and approaches to those topics.
So I guess I’m not sure. Basically it’s a good archive — and we have good tools for digging in to it which are fun to play with — but it’s in no way really comprehensive or an overview of anything in particular besides what people on MetaFilter like to ask and talk about. I really enjoy the “help me find a good book to read” or “help me find a good recipe to make” threads, but you go to another social site and you see very similar threads that go in many different directions than on MeFi and that’s the sort of thing that’s really interesting to me.
I suppose that’s the glory of having a variety of communities around. Do any individual AskMe threads stand out to you as favourites from over the years? I recently enjoyed watching as a bunch of amateur MacGyvers tried to help someone who’d gotten locked in their bedroom.
I have a few favorites:
This is the most popular AskMe thread ever:
And I always like joke threads:
And I got some great advice here: